Today, many are talking about the spiritual disciplines as a means to spiritual growth. This past Sunday, one very accomplished teacher claimed that as we deny ourselves and devote ourselves to fasting or to other forms of bodily discipline, we grow spiritually and are better attuned to God and, consequently, better able to love others.
Although I certainly share this goal, I began to think about a number of verses that seemed to suggest otherwise:
· The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth… Rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:1-8)
Paul seems to contrast the abstention from food (or only certain food) along with physical training – whether fasting, yoga, or controlling our alpha or beta waves – with “godliness,” insisting on the surpassing value of the latter. Paul goes even further to insist that abstaining from food doesn’t bring us any closer to God:
· But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Cor. 8:8)
It seems that there are certain things that open the channel to God, but eating or not eating doesn’t seem to be one of them. Paul also insisted that the severe “treatment of the body” failed to restrain sin:
· "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Col. 2:21-23)
Although it’s commonly believed that subjugation of normal bodily impulses produces spirituality, Scripture doesn’t support this idea. But do such disciplines produce humility? Not according to Paul, who calls such “regulations” a “false humility.” Perhaps they fail because they are merely superficialities, failing to go deep enough to address the real issue:
· The gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings--external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:9-10)
Clearly, fasting and ceremonial rituals failed to penetrate to the place where real change had to take place – the conscience. Perhaps the present-day emphasis on spiritual disciplines represents a return to the ineffectual Mosaic rituals? I tried to respond to the teacher as gently as I could:
· Perhaps fasting does produce some sense of humility and receptiveness towards God. When I fast, I think about food more than ever – not God! But it’s not the discipline that humbles me but what I learn about myself through the discipline – that I am fleshly and need my Savior to help me every moment of my life.
However, he insisted that those more advanced in self-denial and the discipline of fasting have been able to achieve a greater level of spirituality. But was there any Scriptural support for such a claim? I therefore began to reexamine the many verses about fasting.
Although it seems that there is much Scriptural evidence that God responds to repentant and humbled people – and this is often manifested through fasting, sackcloth, and self-denial - I could find no verses that indicated that these disciplines were the means to spiritual growth. For example, the wicked King Ahab repented with fasting, and God had mercy upon him:
· When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son." (1 Kings 21:27-29)
For Ahab, fasting was not a self-transformational spiritual discipline, but as a humble plea to God for His mercy. We see the same thing with the King of Nineveh:
· On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:4-10; also Neh. 9:1-2; Psalm 35:13; 2 Sam. 12:15-23; Joel 1:14; 2:12)
The King of Nineveh and his subjects didn’t fast as a means of self-improvement but as an act of self-abasement before an angry God. Fasting also had to be the expression of a repentant heart. If it merely had been regarded as a spiritual discipline, God would have regarded it as hypocritical. God scorned mere ritual apart from true repentance:
· For day after day they [Israel] seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high… Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:2-6)
Although Israel had put on a good show of humility, they weren’t truly humble. Had they been, they would have been amenable to the commands of God to treat others with love. Their fasting was therefore self-serving, hypocritical and worthless.
We find the same teaching in the New Testament. Jesus taught about two people who entered the Jerusalem Temple. One was a religious leader, proficient in the discipline of fasting. He boasted, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:12). However, this Pharisee left the Temple without being forgiven.
Likewise, Jesus castigated those who did not fast for the right reasons (Mat. 6:16-18). Fasting for self enhancement wasn’t a fast unto God, as it should have been! The Pharisees even challenged Jesus to explain why He and His followers didn’t fast, while those of John and the Pharisees did fast. He explained to them that new wine must be preserved in new wineskins (Luke 5:30-39); the New Covenant required a new form or packaging - rejoicing.
Interestingly, nowhere in the New Testament is fasting ever commanded. We find the closest facsimile to a command in Jesus’ instructions about casting out a certain kind of demon:
· He replied, "This kind [of demon] can come out only by prayer." (Mark 9:29; NIV)
However, the King James Version – it’s based upon later Greek texts – reads “by prayer and fasting.” However, our modern English translations omit “fasting.” Nevertheless, the Book of Acts does mention fasting (Acts 13:2; 14:23), but never is it associated with the idea of spiritual improvement. If these disciplines were critical to spiritual maturity, it is surprising that they are not explicitly mentioned as such.
Likewise, it seems that other forms of self-denial are beneficial only when the denial of certain pleasures creates room to obey the more important things - the things of God. I’ve already mentioned Paul’s hesitation about self-denial for its own benefits. Paul inveighed against the possible benefits of food and bodily comfort depravation (1 Tim. 4:1-8; 1 Cor. 8:8; Col. 2:21-23). The Book of Hebrews casts doubt upon the benefit of mere rituals (Heb. 9-9-10; However, rituals can be helpful as aids to reinforce the truth.)
Instead, the Christian life is all about denying our own agenda in favor of affirming God’s agenda. We deny our wants in favor of obedience to His wants. Ultimately, I think that this is the intended meaning of Biblical fasting and sackcloth and can be summarized in this proclamation: “God, I want to fulfill your desires not mine!” We have to be willing to die to our agenda and to live to His:
· Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
We are not simply called upon to deny ourselves apart from devoting ourselves to a greater ideal. We deny ourselves in order to follow Him! Self-denial is not a virtue in itself. Instead, we might deny ourselves a meal to give it to someone else!
Well, if we don’t grow through these spiritual disciplines, how do we grow and mature as Christians? Although I admit that we can benefit by abstaining from certain foods and drink – and recovering from alcohol addiction is a great benefit – I don’t think that these successes qualify as spiritual growth. Instead, Scripture identifies the source of spiritual growth as God Himself (although we also rely upon His grace to deal with alcoholism):
· Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)
· For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Cor. 4:7)
Consequently, it is God who should be given the thanks for all spiritual growth, even for our hard work:
· But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
However, this raises two separate questions: “What role do we play in our maturity and what are the means of growth?” First of all, we need to be clear that we cannot do anything without Him. We cannot grow spiritual, even in the slightest way, without Him (John 3:19-20; 6:44; 1 Cr. 2:14). It wasn’t that Paul’s hard work was irrelevant. Instead, Paul recognized that whatever good he had achieved resulted from the fact that God was working through him. Jesus said as much in referring to us as helpless sheep. He also taught:
· Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
The fact that we can do absolutely nothing of any real worth without Him is the uniform message of Scripture. This was certainly Paul’s confession:
· Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. (2 Cor. 3:5)
Scripture is clear that God is the source of spiritual growth:
· For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephes. 2:10)
· Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philip.1:6)
· From whom [God] the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Col. 2:19)
If this is all true, then our proper posture before our God must be one of humility. In fact, this is the posture He commands and requires for our transformation. Jesus had warned:
· "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)
The Pharisee had sought to enhance himself through his various practices and therefore left the Temple alienated from God. Meanwhile, the man who knew and confessed that he was a rank sinner in need of mercy was “exalted.”
Life must start with dying; the way up is the road down. Humility must precede any real spiritual transformation:
· Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7; James 4:6)
How does humility work? By humbling ourselves, we confess our sins; we clothe ourselves in prayer because we’ve come to realize that we can’t trust in ourselves; we devote ourselves to His Word because we have come to see that our own thinking and judgment has so failed us; we obey Him because our own pursuits have led us into the killing fields. And so humility is the soil from which grows those vines – trust, prayer, Bible-meditation, and obedience - that connect us to the roots.
However, we too have a role. The Spirit applies His transformative medicine alongside of our trust, prayer, Bible-meditation, and obedience. Although Paul claimed that those under his ministry had been transformed into an epistle of Christ, he gave credit to the Spirit:
· You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:3)
While we are the product of the ministry of the Word, even more so are we a product of the Spirit applying the Word to our heart. Paul went on to explain that the Jewish nation also had the Scriptures, but it wasn’t profitable for them because they had a veil over their heart, preventing the truth from penetrating. However, now that the Spirit has removed our hard outer barrier, we have been freed to see the truth and to become transformed by it:
· Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
Paul later showed that “beholding…the glory of the Lord” is the same thing as beholding the truths about God (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Transformation occurs when the Spirit applies the truths of God to our heart, as Jesus inferred:
· "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31-32)
Similarly, the Bible teaches that we are nourished by the truth (1 Tim. 4:6; Rom. 12:2) – it’s our growth food (1 Peter 2:2; Heb 5:12-14). It is Scripture that keeps us anchored, confident and secure (Eph. 4:14).
Of course, we need to ask:
· You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
We also need to obey, to be faithful with what we have already received:
· In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)
If we don’t use it, we loose it! However, if we do use it, we grow in discernment and wisdom.
Scripture says a lot of things about spiritual growth. However, it says little to nothing about growth associated with fasting or other forms of self-denial. Although these practices aren’t unbiblical, they should be performed with a Biblical understanding.
One last thought – we should never regard our self-denial or sacrifices as earning anything from God. It’s all about God’s grace and our trusting Him for it. When we believe that we have earned something from Him, we deny that our blessings are strictly a matter of grace.
I hope to send the teacher a copy of this response. Please pray that he receives it well.